Selected category: Drinking Water

EPA’s latest analysis shows perchlorate risks to fetal brain development

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

Pursuant to a consent decree with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is developing drinking water regulations to protect fetuses and young children from perchlorate, a toxic chemical that inhibits the thyroid’s ability to make the hormone T4 essential to brain development. The rulemaking is part of a long process that began in 2011 when the agency made a formal determination that Safe Drinking Water Act standards for perchlorate were needed. Under the consent decree, EPA should propose a standard by October 2018.

In the latest step in that process, EPA’s scientists released a draft report in September that, at long last, answers questions posed by its Science Advisory Board in 2013: does perchlorate exposure during the first trimester reduce production of T4 in pregnant women with low iodine consumption? Does reduction in maternal T4 levels in these women adversely affect fetal brain development? According to EPA’s scientists, the answers are Yes and Yes.

For several years, EPA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have developed and refined a model that would predict the effect of different doses of perchlorate on levels of T4 in pregnant women. The latest version of the model addresses women during the first trimester, especially those with low iodine intake. This is important because iodine is essential to make T4 (the number four indicates the number of iodine atoms present in the hormone); perchlorate inhibits its transport from the blood into the thyroid. The risk of perchlorate exposure to fetuses in the first trimester is greatest because brain development starts very early and is fully dependent on maternal T4. If the mother gets insufficient iodine to offset the perchlorate inhibition, she will not produce enough T4 for the fetal brain to develop properly. When free T4 (fT4) levels are low but without increase in thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH), the condition is known as hypothyroxinemia. When T4 production is lowered further, the pituitary gland releases TSH to increase T4 production by a feedback loop mechanism.

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Eleven states support community lead pipe replacement with proactive policies

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director and Sam Lovell, Project Specialist

The largest source of lead in drinking water is lead service lines (LSLs) – the lead pipes connecting the water main under the street to homes and other buildings. Across the country, three dozen communities, large and small, are taking steps to protect public health and respond to concerns by replacing LSLs.

States play an essential role in helping or hindering progress by communities to replace LSLs by administering EPA drinking water rules, distributing federal funded loans, and approving rates some utilities charge customers.

We identified 11 states with proactive policies supporting community efforts to replace LSLs. These states have almost 3 million LSLs based on a 2016 estimate by the American Water Works Association: just short of half the nation’s LSLs. The 11 states are making a positive difference by:

A cross section of lead pipes. Photo Credit: Georgia Health News

  • Empowering communities with grants like Wisconsin, Virginia, Vermont, and New York have done;
  • Providing options to use rate funds like Indiana and Pennsylvania have done;
  • Requiring inventories of LSLs like Illinois, California, Washington, Indiana, and Ohio have done;
  • Setting long-term goals of fully removing all LSLs like California, Washington, and Michigan have done; and
  • Helping prospective homebuyers know whether the home has an LSL.

These policies won’t ensure that all 3 million LSLs are replaced, but it takes the states one step closer to achieving the goal that in 20 years no one will be drinking water through a lead pipe.

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Cincinnati adopts an innovative plan to eliminate LSLs that is a model for other cities

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

The Cincinnati City Council enacted three ordinances in June 2017 that establish an innovative legal framework to replace the city’s 27,000 lead service lines (LSLs) over the next 15 years. The Council acted after finding that “high levels of lead in water create serious health risks to residents of the City, particularly young children, and using lead service lines between public water mains and properties increases the risk that the lead content of drinking water to the properties served will increase to a dangerous level” and that “replacing lead service lines is in the best interest of the public health, safety, morals, and general welfare.” Although the City stopped allowing new LSLs in 1927, an estimated 1 in 9 service connections still have a portion made of lead pipe.

A member of the GCWW Repair Services Team replaces an LSL. Photo credit: GCWW

Cincinnati’s program is based on Madison, Wisconsin’s successful effort, which began in 2000 and was completed in 2011. Cincinnati is roughly three times larger than Madison in terms of population, service connections, and LSLs.

Under the program, residential property owners within Greater Cincinnati Water Works’ (GCWW) service area can receive between 40 and 50% off of the cost of replacing the portion of the LSL on their property up to $1,500 if they agree to have GCWW arrange for the replacement. Owners within the limits of the City of Cincinnati may choose to have the remaining cost assessed semiannually on their property tax bill and repaid over 5 or 10 years. Property assessments must be approved by the political entity where the property resides. As of today the assessment option is only available for the residential properties in the City. However, GCWW is reaching out to the other jurisdictions it serves to discuss expanding the assessment program to those jurisdictions as well.

GCWW will also be replacing the portion of the LSL on public property so that the entire service line is replaced. The City is committed to fund its share of the work from GCWW’s Capital Budget.

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Article reveals serious shortcomings in Georgia’s oversight of lead in drinking water

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

Safe drinking water largely depends on the integrity of the public water system and the vigilance of the state regulatory agency. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets the standards, conducts the research, and oversees the state regulatory agencies. As we saw in Flint, Michigan, these protections break down when the state regulatory agency fails to identify and address potential compliance issues. Criminal charges have been filed against both state and local officials.

The Flint tragedy prompted EPA to send letters in February 2016 to governors and state agencies reminding of them of their responsibilities under the Safe Drinking Water Act and asking for a meeting with each state to discuss concerns and a written response to key compliance challenges under the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR). EPA posted the state responses online.

The tap sampling required under the LCR is critical since it triggers treatment of the water for small and medium systems and public education and lead service line replacement for all systems if treatment is insufficient. Given this central role, the LCR requires water systems to take water samples from the taps of properties most likely to have lead. For small and medium systems, single family homes with lead service lines are a top priority.

The sampling requirement is challenging since it depends on the cooperation of the resident to let the water stagnate in the lines for at least six hours and then take a first draw sample before anyone uses the water. Residents may need an incentive to cooperate, especially over many years.

A disturbing, three-part investigative report by WebMD and Georgia Health News provided insight into potential shortcomings by utilities that are likely to underestimate the levels. It also highlights Georgia’s apparent failure to identify the problems. The investigators checked on changes in the sampling sites over the years and looked up the sampling locations to determine if they fit the criteria laid out in EPA’s rule. It is an impressive deep dive into LCR compliance sampling issues.

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New EPA model enables comparison of various sources of childhood exposure to lead

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Dr. Ananya Roy is Health Scientist

This week, Environmental Health Perspectives published an important article by scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that sheds important light on the various sources of children’s lead exposure. Led by Valerie Zaltarian, the article shares an innovative multimedia model to quantify and compare relative contributions of lead from air, soil/dust, water and food to children’s blood lead level. The model couples existing SHEDS and IEUBK models to predict blood lead levels using information on concentrations of lead in different sources, intake and gut absorption. The predicted blood lead levels compared well with observed levels in the National Health and Nutrition Evaluation Survey population. Given the variety of independent sources of lead exposure, the model provides a critical tool that public health professionals can use to set priorities and evaluate the impact of various potential standards for all children and not just those with the greatest exposure.

This peer-reviewed article builds on a draft report EPA released in January 2017 evaluating different approaches to setting a health-based benchmark for lead in drinking water. The report has provided a wealth of insight into a complicated topic. Earlier this year, we used it to show that formula-fed infants get most of their lead exposure from water and toddlers from food, while the main source of lead for the highest exposed children is soil and dust. In our February blog, we provided our assessment of a health-based benchmark for lead in drinking water and explained how public health professionals could use it to evaluate homes. The information was also critical to identifying lead in food as an overlooked, but meaningful, source of children’s exposure to lead.

The new article reaffirms the analysis in the January 2017 EPA report and highlights that evaluating source contribution to blood lead in isolation versus aggregating across all sources can lead to very different answers and priorities. A health-based benchmark for lead in drinking water could vary from 0 to 46 ppb depending on age and whether all other sources of lead are considered. For example, a health-based benchmark for infants (birth to six months old) would be 4 ppb or 13 ppb depending on whether or not you consider all sources of exposure.

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New Pew/RWJF report rigorously evaluates options and recommends 10 policies

Tom Neltner, J.D.Chemicals Policy Director

For the past 2 years, the issue of lead – in paint, water, dust, soil, food, toys, and kids’ blood – has been extensively covered in the news. The crises in Flint and East Chicago have laid bare the vulnerability of communities across the U.S. The evidence is now clear that there is no safe level of lead in children’s blood. What used to be tolerable is no longer acceptable. Evidence from studies of children show clearly that levels of lead in blood affect brain development at levels below those once considered acceptable and should not be tolerated. We must be vigilant to prevent young children’s exposure to lead.

We have already made substantial progress as a nation. From 1999 to 2014, mean blood lead levels in young children dropped 56% and the levels over 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood dropped 86%. This change was due to smart policies, effective regulations, funding, and vigilance from federal, state and local agencies as well as private and non-profit organizations. Despite this headway, lead exposure continues to be a significant problem, preventing our communities from thriving and holding back the future generations from achieving their full potential.

Last year, several organizations developed comprehensive plans1 to eliminate lead exposure. Each added value to the discussion. Today, a new report from the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of The Pew Charitable Trusts and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), provides a rigorous analysis of the costs of lead and the impact of various policy solutions to help protect children from the harms of lead exposure. My colleague, Ananya Roy, and I served as advisors on the project.

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